Poor Zefron’s Almanac by Carl Klutzke [Comp97]

IFDB page: Poor Zefron’s Almanac
Final placement: 7th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right about the time that Poor Zefron’s Almanac (hereafter called PZA) starts feeling like another humdrum sword-and-sorcery game, it executes a nice surprising twist. To say too much more would be to give the game away, but the fact that the author bills PZA as “an interactive cross-genre romp” is a clue toward its direction. This twist made the game refreshing and fun again, especially after the frustration it caused me when I began playing it. More on that later. PZA does several things very well, one of which is its eponymous book, a tome owned by your wizardly master Zefron and left behind after his mysterious disappearance. This almanac contains a feature unique to all the CONSULTable items in IFdom (as far as I know): it can be BROWSEd. Browsing the almanac brings forth a random entry from within its pages; not only is it great fun to read these random entries, it also gives a sense of how thoroughly the almanac has been implemented. This device would be most welcome in other IF… how I’d love to browse the Encyclopedia Frobozzica or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! Just having the book at hand lent a sense of scope and excitement to PZA.

Unfortunately, my first 45 minutes or so of playing this game were extremely frustrating. PZA suffers from a couple of serious design flaws, the gravest of which is its repeated violation of the Fifth Right (from Graham Nelson’s “Player’s Bill of Rights”): not to have the game closed off without warning. Because of a fairly flexible (but extremely temporary) magic spell that becomes available at the very beginning of the game, I found myself repeatedly stranded, unable to proceed and forced to RESTART. This happened again later on in the game — I committed a perfectly logical action and found out hundreds of turns later that this action had closed off the endgame. This is a frustrating experience, and one that could easily have been avoided with a few minor changes to the game’s structure, changes which would not have had any discernible effect on puzzles or plot. In addition, there are a few areas in which the player character can be killed without warning, always an unwelcome design choice. PZA is (as far as I know) Carl Klutzke’s first game, so chalk these flaws up to education. I look forward to playing another Klutzke game as well-implemented as PZA, but designed more thoughtfully.

One nice element of PZA was its facility with IF homage. The game’s “cluple” spell not only had a name that sounded straight out of Enchanter, it was virtually identical to that series’ “snavig” spell. The almanac itself (as well as a number of other features) was a skillful allusion to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Finally, the XYZZY command response is one of the more clever I’ve seen in a while. Clearly PZA‘s author is a devotee of the old games, and his devotion shows in his work. I am hopeful that his next piece of IF will live up to his worthy aspirations.

Prose: The prose in PZA is generally very good. Rooms, objects, and random events are described concisely but with attention to detail. Some of the locations are rather sparsely treated (for example, the town consists of one location), but such skimping is always done in service of the plot, and more detail would serve to distract rather than to enrich.

Plot: This is definitely the strongest point of PZA. The game starts out with an engaging hook, and after the twist I was definitely enjoying the direction of the story quite a bit. In addition, the author has manipulated the scoring system in such a way as to give the feeling of multiple endings. Granted, many of those endings amount to one version or another of “*** You have died ***”, but not all of them. There are more and less successful solutions to the story, and they are integrated so naturally into the endgame text that they almost escape notice. One of the nicest implementations of multiple endings in the competition.

Puzzles: Here there were problems. What happens to PZA is that its individual problems are well-considered, and their solutions are perfectly logical. However, when the actions that comprise those solutions are attempted in other areas of the game, they all too often drive the narrative into a blind alley from which there is no escape. It’s one of the hardest balancing acts in interactive fiction: how to have sensible puzzles logically integrated into the game, without making the narrative too linear, which in their elements create no dead ends for the player. PZA doesn’t pull it off.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): Once I played PZA on WinTADS, I had no problems with it. I started out trying to use it on my old DOS version of TR, and before I could even get one command out it was giving me TADS “Out of Memory” errors. Whether this is a bug in the program of the interpreter, I don’t know enough about TADS to say.

OVERALL: An 8.0

E-MAILBOX by Jay Goemmer [Comp97]

IFDB page: E-Mailbox
Final placement: 27th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, if there’s a prize for shortest competition game, E-MAILBOX will win it hands down. Clocking in at just under ten minutes, it barely gets off the ground before telling you either that you’ve won or that you’ve just met your death by having your body’s cells torn apart from one another. Not much of a menu, but at least either way the end comes quickly. The game purports to be “A true story based on actual events that occurred to a real individual,” but is written in a broad, exaggerated tone that is probably meant to be burlesque. It’s funny, in a limited kind of way, but it’s hard for the game to do very much when it ends so quickly.

One thing that it does do well is proves that an AGT game can hold its own in a modern competition. E-MAILBOX is short, yes, but it’s fun while it lasts. I used Robert Masenten’s AGiliTy interpreter for the first time, and found that it produced output that was well-formatted, easy-to-read, and even sometimes (gasp!) aesthetically pleasing. The game achieves a few nice special effects — nothing that couldn’t have been done with Inform or TADS (I don’t know enough about Hugo to say one way or the other) but nothing to sneeze at either — and generally works imaginatively with the text format. Of course, one wonders whether E-MAILBOX was kept so short in order to disguise the limitations of its programming system. There is virtually no navigation within the game, and the very linear design prevents most parser experimentation. Thanks to the handy AGT counter, I know that E-MAILBOX has a grand total of 4 locations, some of which only respond to one command. This game is a brief bit of fun, but the jury’s still out on whether AGT can match up to more modern systems when it comes to more substantial works.

There are some interactive fiction games that are epic, and may take even a great player a three-day weekend to complete (without looking at any hints, of course). Then there are those which could take up a day or two, and those (many of the competition games, for instance) which might fill a long lunch break. Play E-MAILBOX over a 15 minute coffee break. You’ll have some fun and still have time for a brisk walk.

Prose: I found the prose in E-MAILBOX to be pretty over-the-top. As I say, I think it was intended as burlesque, but its outrageousness seems forced. It comes across as the prose of a voice which is promising, but has not quite fully matured. It’s not exactly the sophomoric arrogance of something like Zero Sum Game — more an overly sincere zaniness.

Plot: The plot is so short and simple that it’s hard to tell much without giving away the ending. Basically, it centers around trying to send an email message. (See, I told you: short and simple.)

Puzzles: Well, I never found anything that I thought really qualified as a puzzle. The actions necessary are either entirely obvious, or entirely obscure but well-prompted by the parser.

Technical (writing): I found no errors in E-MAILBOX‘s writing.

Technical (coding): As I said above, the game does a nice job for something so short. The author makes an AGT game fun to play, which in my experience is no small feat. A well-implemented piece of work, short work though it may be.

OVERALL: A 5.8

Friday Afternoon by Mischa Schweitzer [Comp97]

IFDB page: Friday Afternoon
Final placement: 16th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

You work in a cubicle. When the printer breaks, you’re called upon to fix it. You write programs and then write the documentation for them. But you’re not a nerd! This is the premise behind Friday Afternoon (hereafter called Friday), Mischa Schweitzer’s game set in corporate cubicle culture. Friday isn’t Dilbert by any stretch of the imagination — it’s less a spoof on that culture than it is a puzzle-solving game using the cubicled workspace as its backdrop. It starts with a relatively simple goal (finish the items on your to-do list), throws in a few puzzles to complicate things, and goes from there. These puzzles are well-done — they don’t serve to advance the plot very much (since there is no plot to speak of), but they feel natural to the setting, and their solutions are usually sensible and intuitive. In fact, several puzzles can be solved by relatively mundane actions, but the feeling of putting together the logic to find the right mundane action is quite satisfying.

A less pleasant part of Friday is its construction of yet another annoying player character. This character’s main motivation seems to be a desire to prove the fact that he (see below) is not a nerd, by way of going on a date. Now, maybe many people do struggle with this kind of identity crisis, but for the narrative’s purposes it makes the main character seem shallow and unappealing. The character’s gender is never specified by the game, but one section in particular shows that the character is very probably a male, and very definitely a sexist. The unfortunate thing about this is that none of it is really necessary. The sexism demonstrated by the calendar puzzle could just as easily have been pushed off onto other characters without touching the main character. The date doesn’t have to prove that the character isn’t a nerd — it could just be a date, like regular people go on without having to prove something to themselves. As it is, Friday contributes to some rather unattractive stereotypes about the type of person who works in a cubicle.

Of course, this is not to say that the game sets out to make a grand point — I’m quite sure that it doesn’t. According to the author, the game started out as a light satire of his own office. I have no doubt that this early version was a great success, since the core of the game is entertaining and clever. For the competition version, he added a couple of puzzles, and removed all the inside jokes and Dutch words. The result is definitely generic enough to feel like it applies across the board. I work in a financial aid office as a counselor, but several of the puzzles still felt like they could have happened to me. Overall, Friday Afternoon is an enjoyable game and a nice utilization of an underused subgenre in IF. (What happens when the protagonists of college games graduate? They become the protagonists of office games!) It’s flawed by some problems with the player character, but is aided by fine characters, very good puzzles, and solid implementation.

Prose: The prose in Friday definitely has an odd feel to it, as if something is just a bit off. I attribute this to the fact that the author is not a native English speaker — the awkwardness is probably due to a very slight discomfiture with the language. Of course, this is not to say that the prose is bad. It usually does its job quite well, conveying humor and frustration effectively. There’s just a slight unnatural feeling to it.

Plot: There isn’t much of a plot in Friday. It’s basically yet another variation on the “check items off of a list” flavor of IF. Of course, the great thing about Friday is that by placing the to-do list in an office setting, the game gains a very realistic feeling. I really do deal with situations every day where I have a list of things that need to be completed before I can leave work, and so the logic of a game written around such a list feels quite genuine. This device allows the game to escape the aura of contrivance that mars other “recipe” games.

Puzzles: The best feature of Friday is definitely its puzzles. They fit so seamlessly into the setting that I’d be willing to bet that the author has faced several of them in real life. Puzzles like repairing the glasses require several steps, wherein each step is logical and natural but also requires a bit of resourcefulness. Solving puzzles like these provides a feeling of accomplishment that no simple mechanical or lock-and-key puzzle can give.

Technical (writing): There was a slight flavor of awkwardness to the writing, but to the author’s credit it didn’t often manifest itself in outright errors.

Technical (coding): I found no bugs in Friday.

OVERALL: A 7.7

Sunset Over Savannah by Ivan Cockrum [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sunset Over Savannah
Final placement: 6th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sunset Over Savannah (hereafter called Sunset) is one of the most impressive, enjoyable, and successful games of the 1997 competition. Interestingly, it shares a strategy with another very successful game, She’s Got a Thing for a Spring: both games present a natural world where fantasy-style magic is subtle to the point of nonexistence, but which nonetheless is suffused with wonder, divulging incredible sights that move the spirit as strongly as ever did any of Gandalf’s fireworks. The game takes place on a beach whose implementation is exquisitely complete, a small space which allows a great number of options within it… narrow but very deep. In itself, implementation of this depth carries a kind of magic, the kind of delirious sense of possibility inherent in all the best interactive fiction. The magic goes beyond this, though. The puzzles in the game (at least, the ones I had time to solve) are focused on a single theme: finding magic and wonder in a seemingly mundane world. As you wander the game’s beach and find ways to ferret out its secrets, those secrets display themselves in fiery sequences of enchantment and glamour. It’s an effect whose emotional impact could not be duplicated in a graphical game, only imitated. The arresting visuals would be there, but they would only carry a pale shadow of the reverential awe conveyed by the author’s excellent prose.

In a gutsy choice, Cockrum centers his game around emotional transition, presenting a player character whose inner state is conflicted: you’re at the end of your vacation (shades of Trinity), and the experience has made you reassess your life, especially in relation to your mind-numbing job. Is it possible that the best thing you could do is to quit, and try to set your feet on another path? In pursuit of the answer to this question, you wander the beach at Tybrisa Island, near Savannah, Georgia (hence the game’s title,) discovering amazing sights in your explorations. Going further than simply making an emotional journey the subplot of his game, Cockrum focuses the action upon it. The game’s “scoring” system does keep track of puzzles solved, but does it in emotional rather than numerical terms, starting with “conflicted” and moving through “astonished”, “respectful”, etc. I thought this innovation worked brilliantly. As someone who is interested in experimenting with the concept of score in IF, I was greatly pleased to see a game whose scoring system fulfilled the basic purpose of a score (keep players posted on their progress) and went beyond it in such a flexible and artistic way. The fact that the “emotion register” on the status bar changed not just in response to progress in puzzle-solving, but also to smaller changes in game state (switching briefly to “refreshed” after a quick dip in the ocean, for example) lent a depth of characterization to the player’s avatar which was perfectly suited to the medium of IF. I hope that authors take the lesson from Sunset that score can serve not just as a gaming metafunction, but also as a primary driver for the plot.

The game’s design is also first-rate. Following the example set by LucasArts’ games, Sunset is impossible to put in an unsolvable state. Impressively, it achieves this degree of closure without ever resorting to arbitrary, contrived, or artificial devices. Instead, the gaps are covered so naturally that they often enhance the game’s sense of realism. For example, if you pry a brick from the stony path, then lose that brick beneath the waves, the game says “With the path breached, you could probably excavate another brick.” It’s simple, it’s natural, and it prevents the irrevocable loss of an important item. The game’s structure is tight and smart, forgiving and flexible. In addition, there are several touches which reveal significant care and attention on the part of the author. Sunset provides very thorough instructions for players new to IF, a document into which the author clearly put great deal of effort. It also presents a thoroughly implemented hint system, and several sections of documentation, including credits, a list of features, and a listing of the author’s design philosophy, in which he acknowledges his debt to LucasArts. The puzzles are difficult, and there are a few bugs in the implementation, which are why this game stopped just short of being a perfect 10 for me. Once those bugs are fixed, Sunset Over Savannah will be one of the best games ever to have emerged from the interactive fiction competitions.

Prose: The game’s prose is of a very high quality. Cockrum faultlessly conveys the mood of the beach in Sunset‘s room descriptions. The prose employed at the magical moments was breathless with a sense of wonder, imparting just the right amount of awe and astonishment without going over the top into cheesiness or melodrama. And as someone who works in a job that I find less than thrilling, I thought that the sections dealing with the emotional turmoil brought be examining such a situation and trying to figure out what to do about it were expertly handled.

Plot: I think the game’s plot is a master stroke. Sunset has as much or more thematic unity as any interactive fiction game I can think of, and this unity lends a sense of sweep to the plot which makes the game such a powerful experience. Sunset establishes its focus from its first few sentences, and from that point on every piece of the game is an elaboration or variation on that conflicted, questioning theme. This seamless melding of plot and design made Sunset seem like more a work of art than a computer game.

Puzzles: This is where I stumbled just a bit. However, I’m not yet convinced that my stumbles are entirely the fault of the game. For one thing, the game’s environment is so rich that I didn’t get around to really focusing on puzzles until I’d played for about an hour, at which point I only had an hour left to concentrate on puzzle-solving before the competition time limit ran out. However, during that time I found it difficult to solve any puzzle, and I finally turned to the hints with about a half-hour left. What I discovered was that often the answers to the problems I was having were things that never occurred to me because of my unconscious, implicit assumptions about the depth of the game’s implementation. [SPOILER WARNING] For example, at one point I need a thin line to tether something, and the solution is to take the strap off of the swimming goggles I’ve found. It simply never occurred to me to take this tack in the game, though it’s something I would have come up with pretty quickly in real life. Why? I just assumed that the goggles were implemented to be all of a piece — I didn’t realize that the game designer had put enough care into them to make the strap detachable. [SPOILERS END] I solved two major puzzles in the game, and I look forward to returning to it and solving more. I’ll do so with a new paradigm in mind, and the fact that Sunset can make me change my perspective in such a way is a testament to its implementor’s prowess.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in Sunset‘s writing.

Technical (coding): There were a few bugs in the game’s implementation. I found one action which provokes no response from the game. Another action is supposed to change the setting in a particular way and fails to do so, even though the game tells you it has succeeded. There were one or two “guess-the-word” problems. I don’t think any of the game’s problems will be too difficult to fix.

OVERALL: A 9.6

A Good Breakfast by Stuart Adair [Comp97]

IFDB page: A Good Breakfast
Final placement: 23rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

This one was a tough decision. It’s a good game in many ways, but the version initially submitted for the competition has a serious bug which makes it unwinnable. The author submitted a fixed version in November, more than a month after the contest began, and moderator Kevin Wilson left it up to each judge to decide how to assign ratings in light of the situation. It’s a hard choice — obviously the author worked hard on the program, so perhaps it’s fair to allow him to correct such a gross mistake so that the entire game would be available for review. On the other hand, the contest did have a deadline, so is it fair to allow authors to evade that deadline, especially if the decision is made based on the enormity of the flaw in the original submitted game? As I understand it, the bug was not due to any error on Kevin’s part, but rather to authorial oversight: can it be ignored?

I gave it some serious thought, and my decision was: no. The deadline is part of the challenge: you must submit the best current version of your game as of the deadline, and the judges will make their decisions based on the version you submit on that day. “The best current version” means completed, proofed, and playtested (and played through at least once to make sure it’s winnable, thank you.) Wearing the Claw was thoroughly tested and debugged last year before I entered it, and even then the competition release had a major problem which I would dearly love to have fixed. But I didn’t even ask, because it was after the deadline, and I felt that it would have been cheating to ask that a fixed version of my game be judged when everyone else’s had to stand on its own merits as submitted. Consequently, I’ve decided to rate A Good Breakfast (hereafter called AGB) in the version that I downloaded, right along with all the other games, on October 9.

Even in the broken version, there’s a lot I liked about this game. The bug simply stops forward progress about 2/3 of the way through the game, so I did see a majority of it before being forced to quit. Basically, the premise of AGB is based around a simple, long time limit. You’ve just awoken, famished, after a long night of drunken revelry. You must comb through your demolished house and put together, as the game’s title suggests, a good breakfast. Eventually, if you don’t eat, you die. Now, a great deal of logic gets sacrificed along the way to this goal. Elements occur in the plot which are highly contrived and very obviously only there to drive the narrative. However, the situation is delivered with a great deal of panache, and some interesting side roads to explore on the way to finding that sought-after bowl of cereal. In addition, there are a couple of good puzzles to be found in the game.

Interestingly, aside from the serious, game-killing bug, the code wasn’t all that buggy. There was a television that wasn’t implemented properly, but there was also a much more complicated computer and robot which were bug-free (as far as I could tell, anyway). The author seems to have some proficiency in Inform, so I’m betting that the game didn’t go through much beta testing. Once it does, it will be an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Prose: The prose is one of the better features of this game. It’s generally judiciously chosen, and often quite funny. AGB memorably captures the feeling of waking up in one’s house after a wild party has occurred there, from the TV set festooned with silly string to the strange inability to find one’s clothes. Suzy the robot is sufficiently endearing, and the computer exaggerated to the right point for laughs. The game’s prose has a distinctly British flavor (more so than many other games submitted by UK residents) which also adds to its charm.

Plot: AGB uses the typical, simple adventure plot of constructing a desired object from various widely scattered parts. The post-party setting provides just barely enough plausibility for this scattering, and adds a touch of absurdity that makes questions of plausibility seem less important anyway. Of course, I didn’t reach the end of the game, so I can’t report on the plot in its entirety, but from what I saw, the plot (like those of many competition games) was very simple and served its purpose more than adequately.

Puzzles: On the whole, the game does a very nice job of blending its puzzles with the main narrative flow, allowing them to naturally arise from the setting and situation. Examples of this are the dirty bowl and the high shelf. Other puzzles, like Suzy’s game of “onny-offy”, are more arbitrary, but still quite forgivable. Then there are puzzles which seem quite gratuitous, adding a layer of pure contrivance to the plot, and which probably would have been better left out or redesigned (I’m thinking here of the milk puzzle). On balance, the majority of the game’s puzzles are well-designed and competently implemented.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): As I mentioned above, the game’s major downfall is that it has a bug so serious that it prevents players from being able to progress past about 2/3 of the way through the game. The author has obviously already caught this bug, and so it shouldn’t be a problem in future versions of AGB. Beyond that, there are definitely some bugs in the game, but in proportion to the game’s size they are few in number.

OVERALL: A 5.3

Zombie! by Scott W. Starkey [Comp97]

IFDB page: Zombie!
Final placement: 12th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

I love the beginning of Zombie!. [SPOILERS FOR THE PROLOGUE AHEAD] In it, you play Valerie, a junior at the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits to the various characters squabbling over how to build a campfire. Equally well-done is the terror of learning that there is something awful lurking in those woods, and it’s coming to get you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed… and then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role: that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn’t you know it?) run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of another, and vice versa for the character I played in the prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the first things you hear with Scott’s ears is a scream — it sounds like Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods? [SPOILERS END]

Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles badly. [MORE SPOILERS HERE] For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it! I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see Scott’s emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt cheated. I wouldn’t have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she was just a throwaway character. [SPOILERS END] Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is far from Zombie!‘s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code, hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of mechanical errors in the writing.

I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great job of building that tension. It’s a b-movie all the way, no deep or serious issues here, but it’s definitely got that suspenseful, creepy feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony in that phrase, so as Sideshow Bob says, you needn’t bother pointing it out.) The sound of heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend.

Prose: The prose isn’t beautiful by any means, and it often shows signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing, and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and built the tension just right for entry into the game proper.

Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly, with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on, as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a competition entry the author didn’t have time to explore it. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Also, as I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd considering that she never again showed up in the game. Finally, I know this is just a personal preference, but I felt a little annoyed that in the end of the game, I couldn’t foil Dr. Maxim’s nefarious scheme. I understand there’s a long tradition of apocalyptic endings in this kind of story, but this ending didn’t manage the triumphant feeling of destroying evil or the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat. [SPOILERS END]

Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn by now. However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn’t been plagued by bugs, its puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the narrative rather than obstructing it.

Technical (writing): There were a significant number of mechanical errors in Zombie!‘s writing.

Technical (coding): The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least one round of intense playtesting before it’s really ready for the world at large.

OVERALL: A 7.5

Symetry by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp97]

IFDB page: Symetry
Final placement: 32nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, man. When I saw the title, one misspelled word, I began to feel the familiar dread. When I read the tortured sentences of the introduction (“Tonight will be the premiere of you slumbering under its constant eye.”) the fear built higher. And when I saw the game banner, I knew that it was true: Rybread Celsius has returned! Yes, the infamous Rybread Celsius, author of last year’s stunningly awful Punkirita Quest One: Liquid and only slightly less awful Rippled Flesh. Rybread Celsius, who announced to the newsgroups that his games would suck, and proved himself extravagantly correct. Rybread Celsius: I hope it doesn’t hurt his feelings if I call him the worst writer in interactive fiction today.

See, he just doesn’t write in English. Sure, it may look like English, but on closer inspection we find that the resemblance is passing, perhaps even coincidental. Misspellings and bad grammar are just the tip of the iceberg. The sentences often just don’t make sense. (For example, “A small persian rug sits as an isolated in the center of the room…” I’m not making this up. In fact, this all comes before a single move can be made in the game.)

But OK, say you were smart and had a good translator, and could understand what the game is talking about. Then, my friend, you would have to deal with the bugs. The game world makes almost zero sense, even if you can get past the prose. Simple commands like “get in bed” thrust you into darkness, at the same time insisting “But you’re already in the Your Bed.” (you weren’t.) Perhaps you’d turn to the walkthrough in such a situation. No luck. In fact, the (twelve-move) walkthrough includes a command which isn’t even in the game’s vocabulary. The best you can achieve is “A Phyric Victory” (I think he means “Pyrrhic.”)

I don’t mean this as a personal attack. I really don’t. I would love to be proved wrong, to see “Rybread” come up with a great game, or even an understandable one. But I’m not holding my breath. Go ahead, play Symetry. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Prose: … oh, forget it.
Plot:
Puzzles:
Technical (writing):
Technical (coding):

OVERALL: A 1.4 (you’ve got to give the guy credit for persistence.)

Sins Against Mimesis by Adam Thornton as “One of the Bruces” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sins Against Mimesis
Final placement: 9th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Few things are more unfunny than an in-joke that you’re not in on. On the other hand, an in-joke that you are in on can be hysterical, as it provides not just the pleasure of humor but also the feeling of community that comes from shared experience. Sins Against Mimesis is definitely a very in-jokey game, and consequently not for everyone. However, having been a longtime (since 1994) lurker and sometime participant in the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups, I was part of the audience at which the game was aimed, and I have to admit that I found a lot of the in-jokes really funny. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the game was to play name-that-reference — kind of the IF equivalent of listening to a World Party album or a Dennis Miller routine. Of course, the nature of the game (and the fact that it was written pseudonymously) also invites us to play guess-the-author. I’m casting my vote for Russ Bryan. I’m not sure why — something about the style just struck me as a little familiar and rang that particular bell in my head. Or maybe it’s just a masochistic desire to humiliate myself publicly by venturing an incorrect guess. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.

If you haven’t played much IF, and in fact even if you haven’t spent much time on the IF newsgroups, most of this game is going to mean very little to you. Even its title is an allusion: to Crimes Against Mimesis, a well-crafted series of articles posted to the newsgroups by Roger Giner-Sorolla (whatever happened to him, anyway?) a year or so ago. The rest of the game continues in that vein. The opening paragraph alludes to Jigsaw. The score of the initial part of the game is kept in IF disks which magically pop into the player’s inventory every time a correct move is made. In some ways, this familiar, almost conspiratorial approach is a weakness. Certainly in the context of the competition it won’t endear Sins to any judge who stands on the outside of the privileged circle at which the game aims itself. Even for an insider, the constant barrage of “if you’re one of us, you’ll know what I mean” references can start to feel a little cloying. However, the game is cleanly coded and competently written, and on the first time through I found it quite entertaining.

There aren’t many games which I would highly recommend to one group of people and discourage others from playing, but Sins is one of them. If you’re an raif and rgif regular, I think you’ll find Sins quite funny and entertaining. If not, forget it. It’s bound to be more baffling and irritating than anything else.

Prose: The prose is generally somewhere between functionally good and rather well done, with occasional moments of brilliant hilarity. The best one has to be when the game is in “lewd” mode and the player amorously approaches the plant: “Your embrace becomes hot and heavy and you surrender to the delights of floral sex.” An LGOP reference and an extremely bad pun at once! Can it get any better?

Plot: The plot is based around several clever tricks which are quite funny at the time, but aren’t worth repeating. If you’ve already played, you know what they are, and if you haven’t played yet I won’t give away the jokes. Like the rest of Sins, the plot is funny the first time through but won’t wear well.

Puzzles: Actually, this was the weakest part of the game. Many of the puzzles can be solved by performing extremely basic actions, which of course hardly makes them puzzles at all. Others, however, depend either on extremely specific (and not well-clued) actions or on deducing something about the surroundings which is not included in object or room descriptions. For a game so adamantly self-aware, it’s ironic that Sins falls into some of the most basic blunders of puzzle design.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Sins‘ writing.

Technical (coding): I found no bugs either.

OVERALL: An 8.3

The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf by Gary Roggin [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf
Final placement: 22nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oddly enough, due to the vagaries of Comp97 I played The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf (hereafter called OQDA) immediately after playing its direct competitor in the silly name wars, Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza. Consequently, my expectations of OQDA were probably distinctly affected by that recent experience. I was expecting another lackluster game where goofy names and so-so jokes were supposed to make up for careless writing, buggy programming, and weak design. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. OQDA is a fairly enjoyable college game (with a minor time travel motif) which kept me pretty entertained for the two hours I played it. Of course, this is not to say that the game doesn’t have its problems. It certainly does: there are many spelling and grammar errors (though not as many as in Phred) and some bugs are definitely still in the game (again, my recent experience with Phred made these seem relatively few as well.) Also, there are several elements about OQDA‘s narrative strategies that I found rather grating — more on this later. Still, with some polishing this game could be an enjoyable vignette.

One interesting thing about OQDA is that not every object in its world serves a purpose within the game. There are locked doors that never need (or even can) be opened. There are many objects that serve no specific purpose. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are a number of puzzles that never need to be solved in order to complete the game. This strategy has its weaknesses: the danger of the red herring count exceeding the tolerable limit is quite high, and solving puzzles is less satisfying when you realize that your brainwork has achieved no appreciable results. Still, on balance, I liked the feeling of openness and mystique that resulted from all these frills in the game universe. That, along with the author’s willingness to implement multiple puzzle solutions and the fact that OQDA is apparently the first chapter of an ongoing work, gave me a similar feeling to that which I had when I first played Zork: the experience of being in a mysterious world which is simultaneously a fun game.

However, there were several elements of the game world which I could have done without. One of these is the way that OQDA constructs its player character. You are told from the beginning that you work in your present job because you were expelled from school during your senior year, due to an “incident involving a freshman (of the opposite gender), a stolen time machine and a bottle of cheap champagne.” The opening text makes clear that you mourn your lost career hopes. Fine. After that, though, almost every single room in the campus Physics building has some kind of remark about how you spend your days weeping and crying. Example: upon examining a couch, “You have spent many an afternoon lying on this couch and weeping into the pillows, wondering what happened to your life. It’s very cozy.” After a while of this, I started to wonder why I cared about this miserable loser who seemed physically incapable of getting on with life. I stopped wanting to play the character, because my sympathy and identification were eroded by a stream of self-pitying text. Infidel plays a similar trick with an unsympathetic player character, but while Infidel at least gives you the pleasure of playing an outright villain, OQDA just provides the less thrilling experience of playing a pathetic whiner.

Prose: As I just mentioned, the prose sometimes goes much too far in repeating the same thematic point in object after object. Another example of this is the game’s treatment of the Anthropology building. There are eight locations around the perimeter of the building; six of these use the word “massive”, “looms”, or “towers”, or some combination of these three. We get the point. On the plus side, the humor in the writing often works well, and some of the silly points within the game were really quite funny. I especially enjoyed some of the professors’ names, like French professor Dr. Eaubooboo, or Philosophy teacher Dr. Jobless — “pronounced (zhahb- LAY).”

Plot: Well, it’s hard to say too much about the plot at this point, since the game makes clear that it is only the first chapter of an ongoing saga (the second chapter is apparently scheduled to be delivered for the ’98 competition). So far as it goes, OQDA‘s plot rests on a very realistic device exaggerated to the point of hilarity. Your boss, Temporal Physics professor Dr. Bignose, has asked you to deliver an envelope to a box on his colleague’s desk. He even gives you a key to the appropriate building. However, in typical absent-minded professorial fashion, he isn’t quite sure where he left the envelope, nor can he verify that his colleague’s office is where he thinks it is, or even if that key really unlocks the building it’s supposed to (predictably, it doesn’t). Unsurprisingly, this apparently simple errand turns into a wide-ranging exploration of a very strange campus. It seems to be only a prelude, but it works well.

Puzzles: One great thing about the puzzles in OQDA is that a number of them are solvable with more than one method. Such a capability always takes extra effort on an author’s part, and it does not go unappreciated. The game has its fair complement of locked doors and their corresponding keys, and there are a number of more inventive puzzles as well. The only problem I really found with the puzzles is that a few of them seemed to be based on wanton destruction for no satisfying reason. There’s nothing anywhere in the prose to indicate that the character is evil (only pathetic and possessed of rather bad judgment), so puzzles which require highly destructive actions went against the grain for me.

Technical (writing): There are a goodly number of technical problems in the game’s writing, including misspellings, typos, awkward sentences, and mangled grammar.

Technical (coding): A number of bugs also exist within the game. The majority of these are puzzles which can be solved over and over, and objects which do not behave consistently when their state is changed.

OVERALL: A 6.9

Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza by Michael Zey [Comp97]

IFDB page: Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza
Final placement: 19th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Before I begin, let me make it clear that I’m a fan of silly, absurd humor. I’m a loyal Monty Python watcher. I think The Jerk and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure are two of the best movies ever made. I gave last year’s competition entry Phlegm an 8.5 because it cracked me up. Consequently, I had high hopes for any game that would title itself Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza (hereafter called PPQP). However, I was disappointed. PPQP certainly wants to be a funny game, and it does have some genuinely hilarious moments. Unfortunately, much of the game is buggy, error-laden, and tedious, and nothing saps my sense of humor more quickly and completely than those three things. In addition, the game seems to have caught the same disease from which Laura Knauth’s Travels in the Land of Erden suffers (perhaps I’ll start calling it Erdenitis): a great deal of swelling and very little focus. The walkthrough goes on for 17 screens. This isn’t a two hour game, folks (see my review of Erden for further comments on this.) Even setting aside the game’s size, it has both surface problems (lots of grammar and spelling errors, a number of serious bugs) and deeper ones (badly designed puzzles.)

There are some things that PPQP does right. For one thing, it made me laugh out loud several times. My favorite has to be when you come upon a butcher who is described thusly: “Gunnar is burly, scary-looking brute. But he has the heart of a lamb. He has the heart of cow, too. He has many hearts in a pile on top of the counter.” That was hysterical. [PUZZLE SPOILERS AHEAD] I also enjoyed killing a vampire by driving a fatty steak into his heart before he arose from his coffin. As he dies, he exclaims “Too much cholesterol. My arteries can’t take the torture.” [SPOILERS END] In addition, many of the names chosen for places and people strike the right note of humor. In fact, many of them are strongly reminiscent of the Unnkuulia series (for example, “Mizztik Island”), which in my mind is a good thing. These moments of mirth prove that the author is definitely capable of writing funny moments. Unfortunately, the game proves unable to sustain the humor, a task made no easier by its bugs and errors.

I won’t go on for too long about these, except to say that the game clearly should have had some intense playtesting before it was released to the public. Playing it reminded me of the old New Zork Times playtesting article with the story of how initially in Dave Lebling’s Suspect it was possible to carry Veronica’s corpse around the party and not have anyone react to you in any way. In PPQP I was able to solve a puzzle or two without ever having found the items necessary to do so, and to add an unconscious dwarf to my inventory after I tried to take off his vest. These things were funny, but I don’t think this was quite the type of absurdity the author was aiming for.

Prose: At times, the prose works beautifully, delivering funny lines with good pacing and diction. Other times, it feels a bit over the top, trying too hard to be funny and falling short. The conclusion I came to after two hours of play is that the author is probably quite funny, and is working on the craft of distilling that humor into written form. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I look forward to his future creations if he continues to develop his comic voice.

Plot: Well, play a silly game, find a silly plot. The idea behind PPQP is, quite predictably, a treasure hunt. This particular variety of treasure hunt asks you to chase down all the ingredients necessary to make a pizza as demanded by Phred Phontious (not the main character, surprisingly enough), the court jester who is your boss’ boss. You, the lowly peon, must traverse the faux fantasy landscape to come up with the sauce, cheese, mushroom, etc. It’s a silly, shopworn device that nonetheless serves its purpose. Of course, I didn’t come close to finishing the game in two hours so I don’t know whether the pizza ever actually gets made, but that’s not the point anyway.

Puzzles: This was one of the weakest areas in PPQP. A number of the puzzles are highly dependent on each other, and a few are not as well clued as they should be. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I found myself completely stuck after exploring for a little while, only to discover that I was supposed to pull a hook in the kitchen. I didn’t see anything suggesting that the hook should be pulled, and the prose led me to believe that the hook was in the ceiling and (I reasoned) hard to reach. Turns out the hook was in the wall, and pulling it opened a secret passage to a wine cellar which held a bottle of wine absolutely necessary for any progress in the game. [SPOILERS END] This struck a sour note with me, and I found myself using the walkthrough repeatedly after that. I still didn’t come anywhere close to finishing in two hours.

Technical (writing): There were quite a few mechanical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): As mentioned above, the game was quite buggy. It definitely could have used another round or two of playtesting.

OVERALL: A 4.2